ST. LOUIS — For the first time in a long time, the St. Louis Cardinals are suddenly in an unfamiliar must-win predicament.
The Cardinals won 105 games, one off the 52-year-old franchise record. They were the first team to clinch a division, wrapping up the NL Central on Sept. 18. They dispatched the Dodgers in four games in the first round of the playoffs and won the first two games of the NLCS.
But that dominance is all in the past. They have to beat the Houston Astros twice, in Games 6 and 7 today and Thursday, or they're done.
"We've got to win, that's it," right fielder Larry Walker said. "It's win or nothing."
They're not particularly surprised or dismayed by their predicament. The series thus far has gone according to form since the Cardinals beat two lesser-known pitchers to get off to a fast start at home, and the Astros answered by sweeping three straight at their park, the first two games started by aces Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens.
Now, all the Cardinals have to do is put the home-field advantage to work, and they'll be in the World Series for the first time in 17 seasons.
"It's not over," first baseman Albert Pujols said. "Until you get beat four times, it's not over. We feel pretty comfortable here and we've played great in the postseason at home, and it's going to help us."
The Cardinals have been remarkably consistent all year, with no losing streak longer than three games until they dropped four straight while coasting to the regular-season finish from Sept. 27-30. Coincidentally the first three losses in that slump came when they were swept at Houston, which was in a must-win situation most of the final month of the season.
Losing three straight in the playoffs to the Astros did not seem to diminish the team's confidence, built over the course of the season which began with low expectations.
This is how easy it looked for the team that was picked to finish behind the Astros and Chicago Cubs: The Cardinals led the division by seven games at the All-Star break. The cushion had grown into a 17-game bulge on Sept. 12, six days before they clinched their fourth playoff berth in five years.
"This team has a lot of heart and we've been doing it all year," Game 6 starter Matt Morris said. "Hopefully the foundation we've built helps us through the next couple of games."
For Morris at least, the magnitude of the start is a familiar feeling. He's been inconsistent this year with a 4.72 ERA trailing the rotation, numbers that prompted manager Tony La Russa to bump him to Game 3 of the division series and Game 2 of the NLCS.
Still, he won 15 games this year, has 65 victories the last four seasons and has made the last three opening day starts. He pitched well in an elimination game in 2002, a 2-0 Game 5 loss to San Francisco in the NLCS.
"I think the feeling with this team all year has been that we've been a team that should go to a World Series and compete for a ring," Morris said. "I think that's the difference that we have, just the feeling and the belief in ourselves."
They put no stock in the momentum the Astros apparently have built since leaving St. Louis.
"I don't buy into it because we won two in a row, and it certainly didn't seem to follow us into Houston," third baseman Scott Rolen said. "Hopefully, it won't follow them back here to St. Louis."
Rolen has a simple formula for the rest of the series, which he referred to on Monday as a pair of Game 7s.
"It's just a situation where you go out and you prepare yourself and you let it all go," Rolen said. "You play with as much heart as you possibly have and you dig deep and see what you come up with.
"When that first pitch is thrown, we'd better be ready to go."